More years ago than I’d care to admit, I appeared in a community theatre production of Richard Rodgers’ Two by Two, a musical about Noah and the ark, in which I played one of Noah’s sons, Japheth. In one musical number, Noah and his three sons, Ham, Shem, and Japheth, are arguing over the need for a rudder on the ark. Noah insists that, since God didn’t mention a rudder when He gave the plans for building the ark, then the ark did not need a rudder. The sons, of course, insist that a boat needs a rudder in order to steer it.
A rudder is an underwater blade found at the stern of a ship that allows the pilot at the helm to control the movement of the ship. When the helm is turned, it moves the rudder and the ship moves in the direction in which the helm was turned. The rudder is a very small part of the ship, yet it has the ability to move that large ship wherever the pilot wants it to go. In his letter, the apostle James compared the rudder to the tongue. Like a ship’s rudder, the tongue is a small part of the body, yet it is capable of great things (James 3:4-5).
The tongue is capable of great things, both good and bad. For that reason, the tongue needs to be tamed. When taming a horse, a bit is used. The bit, placed in the horse’s mouth, allows the rider to guide the horse in the direction in which he or she wants it to go (James 3:3). What was once a wild animal is tamed. The horse will obey the rider’s pull on that bit. People have the ability to tame wild animals, they have the ability to steer large ships, but no person can tame the tongue (James 3:8).
The same tongue that is used to bless the Lord, to worship Him and give Him praise, may also be used to curse others. When we curse others, we are cursing people who, like ourselves, are made in the image of God (James 3:9). The untamed tongue is capable of both blessing and cursing but, as James points out, this should not be (James 3:10). A careless tongue not only hurts the person to whom our words are directed, but it also defiles us and can destroy our lives through broken relationships.
In order to tame the tongue, we need to rely on the Holy Spirit. When we allow the Spirit to work in us, when we surrender control of every aspect of our lives, He will guide us and help us to live righteously, to become more like Christ. Like the pilot who steers a ship by controlling the rudder, the Holy Spirit can help us to control and tame our tongues. We just need to step out of the way and allow Him to do so.